The grass is always greener. It’s a very common phenomenon in sports. Many fans tend to be harsher while judging their teams, overlooking their strengths, and putting a microscope on their flaws, while doing the opposite with their rivals.
It’s always important to take a step back, get out from the weeds of one’s own team, and try and look at things from a different perspective. A certain maneuver made by a division rival, early in this offseason, has caused me to reflect on a particular point of strength of the Yankees.
In mid-November, the Toronto Blue Jays dealt slugging outfielder Teoscar Hernández to the Seattle Mariners, in exchange for reliever Erik Swanson and a minor-league pitcher named Adam Macko.
This trade didn’t come as a big surprise in a vacuum. One of the bigger issues for Toronto in the past season was a lack of pitching depth. The bottom of their rotation was bad, and the bullpen came in at the middle of the pack, with a 3.77 ERA, despite having one of the better closers in the league in Jordan Romano.
There had certainly been discussion heading into the offseason that Toronto could’ve been resigned to not bringing back Teoscar, who’ll be a free agent at the end of the year. It seemed plausible they would move him, and perhaps use the added roster space and payroll to make a big move. The former proved true, the latter not so much, with the Hernández serving to shore up the middle of Toronto’s bullpen.
Now, the Jays have a very potent lineup even without Hernández. But they found themselves in a position in they sought to move a player with a .519 slugging over the last three years, a 131 OPS+, all while playing over 80% of his teams games, because the organization has failed to develop depth on the pitching side of things. This isn’t to say it’s an explicitly awful trade from the Jays’ side, but the move forced me to recognize that this is certainly an issue the Yankees wouldn’t have.
Top-level organizations seldom give up high-end value for relief pitching these days. Look at the Astros, Rays, Dodgers, and Yankees over the last several seasons, and recall the last time any paid a premium for a reliever. The Yankees in particular have learned from the lackluster deals given to high-priced free agent relievers last decade, and have joined the ranks of clubs that prioritize finding and developing top-flight relief pitching, rather than importing it at great cost.
The case is that you can often find diamonds in the rough, and work on certain adjustments to increase their potential. The examples are countless, from Clay Holmes with the Yankees, to Evan Phillips with the Dodgers.
Now, this is not to oversimplify things. To reach a point in which your team becomes notorious for unlocking the potential of struggling arms, well, it takes time and investment, and a lot of capable people such as Matt Blake.
Was this the worst trade the Jays could have made? Not at all. Erik Swanson was a shutdown arm who really came into his own last season, posting a sub-2.00 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP across 53.2 IP. He also won’t be a free agent until 2025, while Hernández’s will hit the free market this year.
But still, this process just isn’t the way teams want to build a bullpen in the modern game. Look at the opposite end of things, and the Mariners are another team that’s succeeding in developing high-end relievers. They’ll happily take a premier hitter for someone like Swanson, and still probably have a better bullpen than the Jays.
Just to throw out an counter-example, from the Yankee perspective, the team has a lot of exciting options coming up for their infield, with players like Oswaldo Cabrera and Olswald Peraza looking good in short samples, not to mention Anthony Volpe coming down the line. Gleyber Torres will be a free agent in two seasons. Can you imagine this team trading Torres to bolster a struggling bullpen? It would be a controversial move to say the least.
The Yankees bullpen has become so strong the team had the luxury of DFAa’ing a more than serviceable arm in lefty Lucas Luetge, who ended up getting traded to the Braves. It’s the opposite of the situation in Toronto, where they had to shuttle out a high-level slugger to get their hands on a quality setup man.
This ability to develop pitching is invaluable, and the Blue Jays’ maneuver this off-season, is a prime example of why. And it’s just one place where it helps to get out of the weeds of one’s own team and look at what other clubs are doing, and in doing so get a better feel for what your favorite team does and doesn’t do well.